Liturgy and Archeology: Giovanni Battista De’ Rossi

Aurelio Porfiri

I have already spoken of how the auxiliary sciences make an important contribution to understanding the historical development of the liturgy. If the theological data is important, so is the historical one, when this history is not made to destroy something to which one is averse in principle, but to go back to what are the important data to reconstruct rites, prayers and ceremonies in their development through the ages. 

Let us reflect on the observations made by the scholar Renata Salvarani who speaking about Baptism, observes that “between the ninth and tenth centuries, the baptismal liturgies underwent some transformations, even significant ones, which can be found both in the normative provisions and in the ecclesiastical practice. A new relationship has also been defined between architectural spaces intended for the rite and liturgies, understood as ‘service rendered to the people’, as a set of acts performed with the body in space, according to patterns repeated over time perceived by the faithful as fixed and repetitive, but which – in reality – acknowledges and express changes linked to the context in which a member is initiated into the Christian community.  Some traces of these lines of transformation can also be found in the Brescia area” (1). Observing how Christians decided to use space is a task that, as far as the past is concerned, Christian archeology sets itself as the aim of its action.

Among the greatest archaeologists of the past, we have the Roman Giovanni Battista De’ Rossi, born in 1822. From an early age, he devoted himself to the study of epigraphs and was also employed by the Vatican Library as a writer. He identified the area where the Catacombs of San Callisto were located. In the same place, he identified the tomb of Saint Cecilia and set about cataloging all the Christian inscriptions, thanks also to the benevolence that Pope Pius IX had for him. He was responsible for the important multi-volume work of Roma sotterranea Cristiana, along with other works that he was able to complete despite the historical contingencies that were certainly more stormy than ever for the papal state. 

Nicola Parise, speaking of his work, says: “After calling the council (June 28, 1868), the archaeologist, interpreter of Christian origins, declared that the preaching and martyrdom of Peter in Rome had to be considered proven and demonstrated, hence the primacy of Apostolic See and the attribution to it of the infallibility promised to the Church. Tenaciously conservative, after 20 September, De’ Rossi contributed to keeping alive in the second Rome, the capital of Italy, the presence of those exponents who had contributed to the more recent development of the pope’s Rome. Re-elected to the new Municipal Council as early as 1871, he continued to take care of the protection of the archaeological heritage of the city: he successfully opposed the demolition of the section of the walls of Rome on the Salaria and of the basilica of Ss. Quattro Coronati, he defended the attribution of the property to the State of what was found in the subsoil of the city, he contested the dismantling of the buffer zones created by the pontifical authorities around the Christian cemeterial areas. Although appointed in 1872 in the Municipal (later Municipal) Archaeological Commission of Rome and later wanted by the Minister of Education G. Baccelli, as Vice-President of the Superior Committee of Archeology, for his declared loyalty to the Pope, he did not join the ‘Accademia dei Lincei; and official Italy was not present at the celebrations in his honor in 1892. In 1888 he showed that he shared the doubts of the pope towards the Congress of Catholic scientists which were being organized in Paris and were never tempted like Monsignor Duchesne by modernist disputes” (2 ). He was always a faithful servant of the apostolic see and through his studies, he illustrated the glorious history of the Church.

In a speech read on December 2, 1894, by the academic Orazio Marucchi, of the Accademia di San Luca, it is said among other things: “The doves, symbol of the souls that, loosened from their bodily bonds, fly towards Heaven, the prayers who express the very souls of the deceased interceding for the survivors also begin to appear in this first period but sparingly; as well as almost timidly some biblical scenes taken from the books of the old and new testament begin to appear and always expressed with elegance in a style imitating the classic wall paintings of the Roman houses of the early imperial times. According to his judgment, such is the classic frescoes depicting scenes from the biblical story of Susanna in a noble crypt of the cemetery of Priscilla, in which he showed from the first excavations made in that place one of the most ancient centers of that very ancient hypogeum founded in the apostolic times themselves”. In short, through the exploration of the vestiges of the past, it was possible to understand a vast and complex world in which symbols, signs, images, structures that the genius of man had erected for his own edification, but above all to give glory to God, took place.

(1)  I battisteri tra spazio, comunicazione e liturgia: alcuni casi bresciani in G. Archetti (cura), Inquirere Veritatem. Studi in memoria di mons. Antonio Masetti Zannini, in “Brixia Sacra”, anno XII, pp. 89-101.(2)   PARISE, Nicola (1991). De’Rossi, Giovanni Battista. Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani – Volume 39.